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In Search of Aimai Cristen

By Phillip Good

56,000 words

 

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1. The Ad

Young attractive girl, 24, searching for love, compassion, joy from a man who can provide financial security. Write Aimai Cristen, Box 3689, Barb Office, 1234 University Ave, Berkeley CA 94709.

2. Dino

My dad and I have had our ups and downs over the years.

 

When we were younger, he spent a lot of time with my older sisters and

 

not very much with me. He would play catch with them or challenge them to

 

races, but "because Dina couldn't keep up," he wouldn't play those games

 

when I was around or would announce he was "tired" when I came out to

 

play.

 

This isn't quite true, Dana tells me. Dana says our family also had another

 

game called "Roll the Ball." We'd sit in a circle with Dad at the center, our

 

legs separated so as to make a 'V', and he'd take turns rolling the ball to each

 

of us. Dana's got a photograph of the four of us sitting in a circle on the floor

 

of our family room—the house back in Michigan; my back and Dad's back are

 

to the camera, and Dad, still with his long dark hair, is rolling the ball to Dana,

 

so I guess it must be true.

 

"And what about 'Sardines,' and 'Puss in the Corner'?" Dana would

 

probably ask. And we did go cross-country skiing in the winter and swimming

 

together as a family in the summer: "Marco Polo." O.K., but I still think Dad

 

spent more time with Dana and Donna.

 

About two months ago, I came back home to live with my father. I'd

 

dropped out of school for a while. Done some things I wasn't particularly

 

proud of. I got a job when I was only sixteen: telephone soliciting. And I had

 

a job with one of those 900 numbers—"Intimate secrets," my seductive voice

 

promises, "What do girls really think about when they're alone? You can

 

listen for just $2.35 a minute. Ten-minute minimum." But mostly my friends and I sat around in crummy apartments and talked. Talked all morning and

 

all afternoon. Talked some more and partied in the evenings.

 

I came back home because I know now what I want to do. Go to college.

 

Get a teaching credential. And work with kids that have problems. Of

 

course, I have a few things to get out of the way first, like getting the high

 

school diploma I never quite got around to completing.

 

Well, why not? I need just algebra and a semester of Spanish to get the

 

diploma. It has to be done sometime. And like my dad always said, "you're

 

bright enough."

 

Dana lived a year alone in the house with Dad in her last year of high

 

school. (Never mind they no longer speak.) Now, it is my turn. (She says

 

she came up to him once after a lecture he gave at her college and he looked

 

right through her like she was a total stranger. He says he did try to talk to

 

her, but her politics are so extreme she just won't listen to anybody. They're

 

both partly right.)

 

Since I came back, Dad and I have been part of a tight domestic scene:

 

Breakfast together in the mornings if I get up on time, dinner together in the

 

evening. Nothing really special for dinner. Dad knows how to make

 

spaghetti—he gets real excited because he uses fresh cheese and grates it

 

at the table. I'll fix a salad or sometimes he'll have one already made. Dad

 

also fixes roasts. He's very particular about how they are cooked; he steams

 

the vegetables separately and only adds them to the meat at the very end. I

 

know how to make stuffed peppers and almost any kind of dish where you

 

start with rice and then stir in your leftovers. For dessert we both like ice

 

cream. I'm not sure what else we are supposed to do together, talk maybe?

 

"How are those math courses coming?" Dad will ask. He reaches up a

 

hand and absent-mindedly scratches his scalp; I wish he wouldn't.

 

"O.K. I know most of the stuff... Seriously, I got A's in my last three

 

assignments."

 

"I believe you. Seen this in the paper about the retards on the school

 

board?"

 

"It's a shame." I reply, wondering why we aren't talking about anything

 

meaningful.

 

He shakes his head, takes off his reading glasses and looks at me. I meet

 

his gaze. Though his cropped hair is shot through with gray, his eyes are still

 

dark and penetrating. "You've got to read the newspaper more, read books

 

they don't assign you in class."

 

"O.K." I say to pacify him. And that's our evening's conversation. A wall

 

sits between us, and I can't push through it, yet.

 

There isn't much to night school: a couple of evenings a week in the

 

classroom with other lowlife dropouts, a couple of mornings doing the

 

assignments and reading. College, I know, will be a lot harder. But right

 

now, I'm left with a lot of time on my hands.

 

I don't need to work—at a job I mean. Dad says as long as I live at home

 

and am going to school, he'll pay for everything. I'm not going to hang out—

 

no, not for me, not any more, not with a bunch of guys going no place.

 

(Though I might stop back to talk with them later, when I have my teaching

 

credential.) So what do I do when I'm not in school? Stay at home? Go

 

shopping at the mall? When I moved in with my dad originally, I thought I'd be really domestic.

 

Cook, clean, take care of everything for him. But he's learned a lot in the two

 

years he was apart from Mom. He cleans up now as he goes along. You

 

know, he wipes off counters and puts the dishes away in the dishwasher as

 

soon as the meal is over. So there isn't much mess left for me to clean.

 

I could do the vacuuming—"I'll do that, Dad."—unless he's already done it

 

himself. Our house is so small. Well, not small, small, but it seems tiny to

 

me sometimes with Dad holed up in his study all day long and me tiptoeing

 

around trying not to disturb him.

 

I've cleaned my own room a dozen times over. I've thought about putting

 

up pictures but I haven't quite got around to it yet. Maybe, because I don't

 

know who my heroes are, whose photos I want on my wall.

 

Which leaves me what: A chance to mow the grass (once Dad is through

 

in his study and the noise won't bother him) or clean up the garage.

 

"It's a mess out here, Dad," I say, though I know he is inside in his study

 

and can't hear me. Cobwebs and a wasp nest have to be cleaned up first.

 

Lots of boxes, the same boxes he's lugged around with us since I was a kid.

 

"Can I throw this out?" Children's clothing in a box marked "Give to Goodwill"

 

years ago by my mom. After a parting squeeze for my last pair of Dr.

 

Denton's, I put the box out on the curb and see that it goes off to Goodwill,

 

finally.

 

A paper bag full of crumpled envelopes and computer printouts goes into

 

the garbage where it belongs. Here is a second bag, this one filled with white

 

Styrofoam pebbles —"Don't throw that out," Dad hollers, appearing from

 

nowhere. One box contains all the memos Dad wrote or had sent to him when he

 

worked years ago for a pharmaceutical firm. Its contents include the minutes

 

of the Technical Library Committee: "Janet Henderson has volunteered to

 

look into the possibility of microfiche." I leaf through both the report from

 

Janet Henderson and a caustic memo from my dad criticizing her report. Ah

 

well, let him keep his memos a while longer.

 

At supper—the entire house smells of the garlic that went into the sauce—I

 

asked him about the garage, "Dad, I've started looking into the boxes. All

 

your old manuscripts and memos. Is it O.K?"

 

A broad smile lights up his face, first the left side of his mouth, then the

 

right, the smile extending finally past his dimple to the crinkles in the corners

 

of his eyes. "Sure, it's O.K. I'm flattered. I guess that's maybe why I keep

 

the stuff. In case one or the other of you kids might want to know what I was

 

up to in the old days."

 

Is this a conversation? Not yet, but I think we are getting closer.

 

The next afternoon, I put aside the company memos—they are as boring

 

now as they were then—and seek out the older boxes—the ones that are pre

 

Dina, even pre mom. I found one box that is really old; the tape holding the

 

cardboard together has almost rotted away. I sneeze each time I disturb the

 

dust on the outer surface. At the top of the box is a book of course notes

 

from McGill University: Calculus 223 is dedicated in my father's uneven

 

handwriting to a Miss Jan Davenport. Four more course notebooks lie

 

beneath the first, each dedicated to a different girl. And yellowed newspaper

 

clippings: "Street Car Fares to Rise a Dime. Students Protest." Here is a

 

page from the Sunday Book Review Section, 195_ something: "Too Many Penguins" reviewed by Phillip Good, Willingdon School, Age 10. Oh my

 

goodness, little Phillip Good of Willingdon Elementary School, father-to-be of

 

Dina Good, high school student in perpetuem. Little Phillip likes the book and

 

is anxious to read something more by the same author.

 

I switch to a box of more recent vintage. The outside is water stained and

 

the contents are partially but not completely faded: Letters from Uncle

 

Steven in green ink, letters from Uncle Pete in an almost undecipherable

 

ballpoint. Uncle Pete had been in the Peace Corps. I didn't know that. A

 

collection of Dear John, oops, Dear Phil letters:

 

"Dear Phil. I cannot go with you to the concert tonight. I am sorry but..."

 

"Phillip: I like you, but as I told you when we first met, I already have a

 

commitment..." "Dear Mr. Good, my father says that only fast girls will

 

accept..."

 

And, as if to offset these letters, a note that reads, "Phil. I don't understand

 

why you haven't called. Please. Jan."

 

The note still holds a faint scent of lilacs and I press my nose against the

 

writing.

 

But it is the next and largest box that is the real treasure trove.

 

Psychedelic posters—notebook size—advertise concerts at the Fillmore

 

Auditorium: The Grateful Dead, Clear Light, Big Brother and the Holding

 

Company, Yveshenko reading from his own poetry. (Yveshenko sounds

 

Russian: did they have translators?) I put on a pair of glasses with multi

 

faceted colored lenses, one side yellow, one side pink; through them,

 

everything looks the way it did to Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. And then—but

 

will I have time before supper to read them? —a dozen brown manila folders, each containing an ill-assorted mixture of newspaper clippings and

 

manuscripts, letters to the editor, poems, three columns of want ads, parts of

 

a diary. These clippings may have had an order once; perhaps each folder

 

corresponded to a different year or a different six-month period, but now they

 

are all mixed up.

 

"Has anyone else seen these, Dad?" I ask about the envelopes, meaning

 

has one of my older sisters seen them.

 

It is spaghetti evening, smelling of garlic again and Parmesan cheese.

 

Dad got out his razor before the meal so the dining room smells a little, too, of

 

shaving soap and Aqua Velva.

 

"Oh, I've been through them a couple of times." Dad says, "And I tried to

 

get your mother interested. Have you read any of the stuff?" He tries to

 

appear casual in asking, but something, a restless movement of his fingers,

 

gives his need for recognition away.

 

"Just bits and pieces," I remark, trying to act equally laid back. Actually, I

 

hadn't read any of the manuscripts, yet. I'm still depending on conversation

 

to give me the glimpses of him I need. "Something else I wanted to ask you,

 

Dad: You have this collection of letters that are still in their original

 

envelopes."

 

"The ones from Uncle Steve and Moo Grandma?"

 

"No, the letters I'm talking about aren't addressed to you. They're to an

 

Aimai something or other."

 

He takes off his reading glasses. "Aimai Cristen." His voice is muffled. I

 

wait for him to explain who Aimai Cristen is but he doesn't say anything more,

 

just sits and stares off into the distance. "O.K., if I look at them, too?" I ask.

 

He nods, still not speaking. I can't tell from the nod if he means, "sure, the

 

letters would be a good place to start," or "sure, I can't stop you." O.K., Dad,

 

keep your mysteries. I can be cool, too. For awhile.

 

The next afternoon, I am back in the garage early with the contents of two

 

of the boxes spread out around me. I've made a stack of the card-size

 

posters to put up on my wall. My dad was a fan of the Jefferson Airplane and

 

Big Brother and the Holding Company. So am I now, whoever they were.

 

A manila folder holds clippings from the Berkeley Barb; copies of this same

 

newspaper, neatly folded, line the bottom of the box. I unfold the newspapers

 

and read the articles, one by one. A number of the stories are outlined in red

 

as if Dad were planning to cut them out. Articles by Number Six, the Grass

 

Prophet, Shiva, and Peter Wood.

 

The folders also contain a number of short stories. The heroes are named

 

Rafe or Peter or Jim, but I think they are really about episodes in my Dad's

 

own life.

 

Stories, clippings, extracts from his diaries. It's hard to believe, I tell myself

 

each afternoon I sit cross-legged on the floor of the garage reading: All of my

 

father's life is there in the box. Like coming home, all I have to do is reach out and say, "Hi Dad."

3. The Replies

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Dear Aimai:
You sound fairly interesting; I'm sure you'll find someone who thinks you're terribly interesting.

You shouldn't have much trouble finding someone to support you around here even without the ad. Parties are rather free and open, though I think you'll find too many otherwise interesting and hip people who like me are ridiculously self-centered. There's nothing wrong with self-enjoyment but too many people can sit all day at the table eating ice cream and never get sick. I've found it fairly easy here to share my differences with others, rather than let them become blockades. I'm 24, also, bearded, athletic, and am given to most sexual activities except those involving pain and/or a lack of consent.

Now comes the interesting part. If you'd like to get together sometime and talk, even if you're doubtful of an eventual friendship, fine.

Anyway, reference time. To be sure I won't rape you, you may contact Charity Millar (red-haired, drugoriented—I'm not married and could have screwed her, but declined because of her marriage, Catholic upbringing, now strictly non-Christian, unless changed recently. (Cristen and Christian, is there a connection?) Charity (Cristen and Christian, is there a connection?) Charity 3447 in SF.

Also Les Barber, 883-1991 office or 551-8339 home, a good friend of mine, active with the Campus Crusade for Christ. Two more distinguished and diversified references would be hard to find. Anyhow, I think my relationships with them mirror what I said about sharing differences.
Tom

The next letter is stuck to the envelope and rips when I try to unfold it.

Dear Aimai:
I am a divorced male, early fifties. Shortly after I got married, in my early twenties, I discovered my wife was not a virgin, although she had told me she was. I put up with it for years and divorced her finally.

Since then, I have met a number of women who said they were virgins and were not.
If you are a virgin, I have plenty of money and am well able to support you and give you all the things that you need.
If you are a virgin, call Bill Cummings collect at 916 644-7156.
We had a fire going in the fireplace that evening. The weather was just on the

verge of being cold. I liked the fire as much or more for the aroma of the burning

 

wood as for the warmth.

 

Dad was grading papers. I'd rediscovered the box containing the replies to

 

Aimai Cristen's ad and had brought them inside from the garage determined that

 

Dad and I would have a meaningful conversation. "How'd you get these letters,

 

Dad?"

 

"She gave them to me."

 

I waited for him to say more, but he remained silent, ruminating about Aimai

 

Cristen, perhaps, or merely deciding whether to give an extra half-point for an

 

especially good answer.

 

"Can I read them?"

 

"Be my guest."

 

He smiled as if he knew a secret I didn't know. But he didn't say another word,

 

then, about the letters.

 

!

 

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I thought about Dan's letter and decided I wouldn't have sent him a reply. A lot of

 

my friends have gotten involved with guys like Dan, thinking, "He just needs

 

motivation." It doesn't work. I want someone who believes in himself. "Who would want to write to a guy this empty?" I say to my Dad.

 

"Mother Teresa, maybe. Or some girl who's decided to devote her life to

 

healing the sick."

 

"Not me."

 

"Really? Is that why you learned sign language when you were thirteen?"

 

"That's work. And the deaf aren't pretending to be sick. 'Oh, it's so very

 

lonely.' The deaf have got real physical problems. I can help them. This guy,

 

you can't help."

 

A slow smile crept over my Dad's face. He looks really handsome when he

 

smiles. "I agree with you. Dan would be the wrong guy for you, for any girl

 

really. He says he's lonely, but it's really because he is totally into himself. If he

 

wanted to meet somebody, he'd be out there looking—a bar, a grocery store,

 

someplace. But he's at home, whining. The man you love should be capable of

 

loving you in return."

 

"There isn't any self there," I said.

 

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I turn to my dad again and discover he has stopped grading papers and is watching me.

 

"When were these letters written, Dad?"

 

"1968, '69"

 

"Where would a black man and a white girl go in 1969, especially in a small town like

 

Vallejo or Stockton?"

 

"Where would they go today?"

 

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"Was there an Aimai Cristen?" I asked my dad one day. "I mean is she a real

 

person or did you just make her up?" "She was real." His tone suggested he wanted me to go on and ask him more

 

about her.

 

"Well what was she like?" I asked, using my hands to indicate he should keep

 

talking and not depend on me to prompt him.

 

"Sort of a scatterbrain," he replied, "Like you were for a few years before you got

 

your act together."

 

"Oh sure. A scatterbrain?" I twisted my face up as if I'd been sucking on a

 

lemon. "But it says in the ad, she was twenty-four?"

 

Dad looked at me with those dark penetrating eyes of his. "Aimai may never

 

have got her life organized. I barely knew her, but she came across as if she didn't

 

have any real purpose. You need purpose as much as food and water to keep

 

yourself going."

 

"If you barely knew her, then how come you've got all her letters?"

 

"Oh, that." Dad's eyelids fluttered, a sure sign he was hiding something.

 

"That," I persisted.

 

"There's a big story behind these letters."

 

"Try me."

 

"You got all week?"

 

I smoothed the letter in my hand and put it back unread on the stack. "Sure do.

 

That's why I moved home. To be with you, to have long father-daughter talks,

 

remember."

 

"I remember. Sometimes, though, I wish..."

 

"You wish I hadn't come home."

 

"No!" My dad sat bolt upright in his chair. His sincerity, the vehemence of that

 

single "No!" was undeniable. For a moment, I felt guilty for having challenged him. But just for a moment. He's never really told me that he loves me. If he has, it's

 

been under the cover of darkness, sneaking into my room after I'm asleep,

 

checking on me each night before he goes to bed himself. All right, maybe it's me

 

that has something wrong with her, who needs constant reassurance her father

 

really loves her. No real harm in getting my father to say he loves me, over and

 

over, is there?

 

"I never wished you hadn't come home! Not for one moment, sweetheart. I

 

treasure every minute you've been with me. And I missed you so often when you

 

were gone. No, I wish you and your sisters could have been around at other times

 

during my life. The exciting, crazy times. Like when I met Aimai Cristen."

 

"Be there? I was minus six when you met her."

 

"Lighten up, will you. Be there in spirit. Inside my head. Share my feelings.

 

Maybe, you were there. You could have been the man across the street, the one

 

we didn't see, who fell on a banana peel and slipped under a moving car. Just an

 

innocent passer by who got reincarnated as my daughter. Maybe you were the

 

rock and roll drummer who stepped on the patch cord and electrocuted himself."

 

"But Aimai Cristen," I said impatiently, "Are you going to tell me her story? How

 

did you meet her? Who introduced you? What was going on in your life?"

 

That strange expression came over his face, the one he gets when he's inside

 

his head. For a moment, I thought I'd lost him and then, whoops, he's back.

 

"I responded to this ad in the Freep, the Los Angeles Free Press." He quoted

 

from memory, "'Young attractive girl, 24, searching for love, compassion, joy from a

 

man who can provide financial security. Write Aimai Cristen, Box 5689.'

 

"I was living in L.A. then, yo-yoing up and down the Pacific Coast like most

 

aerospace engineers. From L.A. to San Francisco and back again. The remarkable thing was that whatever city you were in—Burbank, Sunnyvale, or San

 

Diego, Missiles and Space had a branch there. If you got laid off in one place, you

 

just applied to another. At best, you'd miss a day's pay. At worst, you lived off

 

unemployment for a few months. I hear it's pretty much the same today. But a life

 

like that is O.K., sort of, when you're single.

 

"Say I actually wrote something, part of a diary, during that period. You want to

 

read it?

 

"Sure. Glad to."

 

He looked away for an instant trying to conceal his feelings. I could tell he was

 

pleased. I said, "Well, you read my stuff."

 

He looked puzzled. "Your stuff?"

 

"Remember, all those papers I did in school: 'My summer vacation,' 'What I like

 

about second grade,' 'The Pineers'—I really thought 'pioneers' was spelled that

 

way because they cut down pine trees to build their houses. Wait. Remember the

 

long essay I did in junior high school about teenage suicides."

 

"Do I? You got so depressed thinking about those kids that had killed

 

themselves. We began to get worried about you."

 

"About a year too soon."

 

"Or maybe we didn't get around to getting worried soon enough?"

 

We weren't talking any more, my father and I, just sitting, looking at each other.

 

I don't know who I saw sitting in his chair, my dad as he is now with all his gray

 

hair, or that younger Dad, the one with a beard and the ripped pants he wore when

 

he worked around the house, or the Dad, my dad, who came home from work in a

 

business suit and tie and put me on his shoulder and carried me around the house while he looked for Mom. I wonder what he sees when he looks at my chair.

 

Which of the many Dinos?

 

We have a wall between us. Momentarily, we pushed it aside; we touched,

 

however briefly. He didn't tell me the story of Aimai Cristen that night, but I knew

 

that sooner or later he would get around to it. 4. The Apartment

 

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The diary entry ended abruptly in the middle of the page.

 

"That's it?" I said to my father, "That's all you wrote?" He nodded his head.

 

"Well, you got the number of daughters right in your dream anyway. But I'm the

 

only one who's angular."

 

"You're O.K." he said, his eyes sparkling, "You're more than O.K. This girl was

 

drab. You've got personality."

 

"So," I persisted, "what finally happened between you and her?"

 

"Nothing. She followed me out on the landing as I was trying to slip away, still

 

carrying that Bible—it must have weighed a ton. Made me promise I'd come back

 

and read it with her some more."

 

"Well you got to touch her breast, anyway."

 

"Touch her breast? What makes you think that?"

 

"You wrote it in the story." "No. I wrote, 'he thought about touching her breast.' I never even got to put an

 

arm around her. She wasn't my type. The worst part is that while I'm saying

 

goodbye to her or trying to, the manager and his wife are outside playing cards.

 

And they watch me as I walk back to my apartment, all the way around the U. I'd

 

planned to knock on the door of the girl who lived in the apartment next to me, the

 

one who said come back in half an hour, but with the two of them listening

 

downstairs, I just went back inside my apartment, turned on the stereo to drown out

 

the Muzak, and went to bed. Eight-thirty in the evening."

 

" For three weeks afterward, I pretty much did nothing except go to work and sit

 

in my living room staring at the swimming pool. That's why I replied to Aimai Cristen's ad: sitting alone in that apartment at night like to drove me crazy."

5. The Appointment

The initial phone call from Aimai Cristen was interrupted. He could hear the slap,

 

then the sound of a woman crying, and then someone hung up her telephone.

 

She phoned back the next evening at about the same time. She didn't mention

 

the slap or the crying, but she did apologize for having to break off the call. Then

 

she said she would like to meet him.

 

He began to describe how she could get to his place up in Chatsworth—he was

 

new to the Southern California area then and had little or no idea how to get

 

around himself, but she said no, she didn't have a car. "I'll drive down to see you,"

 

he said; "this evening?" he asked hesitantly.

 

"No, tomorrow night." They settled on the steps of the Santa Monica Public

 

Library, the next evening at eight. From there, they would walk and talk, and then

 

they'd see.

 

By the next night, he'd had plenty of time to worry. While he was out seeing

 

Aimai Cristen, what was to prevent her and her accomplices from coming to his

 

apartment and robbing him? For once he was grateful that the concierge, Arnie

 

the apartment manager, lived in the apartment below. "Arnie," my dad said, "I'm

 

going out this evening. I have a date with this girl I met through a want ad. Could

 

you keep an eye on my apartment? And on me if I don't come back."

 

"I think you're crazy," Arnie said, "Going out with a girl you don't know."

 

Inwardly, my dad had to admit he probably was a little crazy. What sort of girl

 

would you meet through a want ad?

 

To download the remaining chapters, go to https://www.shop.zanybooks.com/

 

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